A headmistress receives a visit from a former pupil
By Sally Cavendish
One of the most satisfying things about being a head teacher is feeling that you can make a real difference to your pupils’ lives. If they leave your school equipped for the life challenges ahead, you know you have done the job you were appointed to do. And you are always naturally curious to hear news of old girls, however trivial or apparently inconsequential.
I operated an open-door policy as far as old girls were concerned, and was always delighted to welcome them into my study for a chat and a cup of tea, or indeed something stronger if they visited in the evening.
St Cecilia’s, I should explain, was a rather old-fashioned girls’ boarding school in a rural setting in Lancashire. At the time of this story, in the 1970s, it still practised corporal punishment, in which I was a firm believer.
It must have been in October 1976 when Stephanie Mills, nee Charlton, paid me an unexpected visit at tea-time. She had been a girl at the school in the previous decade and had gone on to university, a career in the law, marriage and motherhood.
I had liked Stephanie a lot. She had a warm, vivacious personality and had buckled down to her studies better than some of her flightier contemporaries.
“Mrs Jennings,” she said, pecking me on the cheek. “It’s been such a long time.”
“Less of the Mrs Jennings,” I said with a laugh. “You can call me Charlotte now.”
So Charlotte and Stephanie it was, as we sat down for a friendly cup of tea in my book-lined study on the first floor.
After ten minutes of small talk, she suddenly shifted in her chair, looked down at the floor and blushed, as if she had something she wanted to confide. I waited, curious.
“You’re not half as scary as I remember,” she suddenly blurted out.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh come on, Charlotte. You know what I mean. That famous cane of yours.”
“Oh, that? Well, OK, I suppose I can be a bit of a battle-axe at times. Spare the rod and all that. But I don’t follow. I never had to cane you, Stephanie, because you were never in trouble, as far as I can remember. You were a model pupil in many ways.”
She gave a shy smile and the question hung unanswered between us for the best part of a minute. It was Stephanie who eventually broke the silence.
“Do you remember Liz Turnbull?”
“Of course. Cocky little miss. She certainly did feel the sting of my cane.”
“Like after she broke into your study in the night and stole a bottle of your sherry?”
I chuckled at the memory. At the time, I had been absolutely livid, but time lends a certain perspective to these things.
“That most definitely earned young Liz a caning. Theft and drinking alcohol. Disgraceful behaviour.”
Stephanie averted her eyes for a second, then spoke in a low whisper.
“I stole the sherry, Charlotte.”
“I said, I stole the sherry, Charlotte.”
”But, but, but? I don’t understand. Liz confessed to her crime. I remember it clearly. She owned up at assembly the next day when I demanded to know who was responsible. Why on earth would she have done that if she had known it was you who stole the sherry?”
“Because I paid her £20 to take the blame.”
I stared at her. £20 was a lot of money in those days, so her story seemed slightly far-fetched. On the other hand, Stephanie had come from a much wealthier family than Liz, who came from a comparatively poor background. It was possible, perfectly possible. But if Stephanie was the real culprit…?
“Yes, it was my backside that should have been on the receiving end,” she said, reading my thoughts. “Not perhaps the worst miscarriage of justice ever, and Liz did get twenty quid for her pains, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?” Stephanie threw back her head and laughed.
“It certainly does,” I said, irritated by her flippancy. “My God, Stephanie. If I had known the full story, you wouldn’t have sat down for a week.”
“How many would I have got?”
“A dozen. Probably on your bare bottom, just like Liz got. With the senior cane.”
“Is that the cane I can see peeping out of the umbrella-stand?”
I followed her gaze.
“Yes, that’s the one. It leaves its mark, I can tell you.”
What she said next was so astonishing that I nearly had to ask her to repeat it.
“Suppose we make up for lost time, Charlotte?”
“To cut a long story short,” she added quickly, seeing my confusion. “I have spent the best part of fifteen years feeling guilty about that episode, and what a coward I was to ask Liz Turnbull to take the blame. There’s a part of me that would like to, well, atone, if that makes sense.”
Yes, it did make sense. Crime followed by punishment followed by penitence. That age-old emotional journey on which so many of my pupils had travelled, bent over my desk. And without the punishment, of course, there could be no penitence.
Nothing further was said. Nothing further needed to be said. I went into the next room and told my secretary, Mary, that I was not to be disturbed for the next five minutes. Then I walked across to the umbrella-stand and extracted the senior cane, while Stephanie, blushing furiously, bent over my desk and raised her skirt.
At the last minute, her nerve failed her. Perhaps it was the loud swishing sound of the cane as I took a practice swing. Or perhaps it was simple modesty and she was embarrassed to bare her bottom in front of another woman. Either way, her white cotton panties remained in place. I could feel the irritation in me starting to rise again.
“I’m waiting, Stephanie.”
“If you don’t take those panties down before I count to three, my girl, there will be extra strokes and they won’t be taps. One! Two!”
The panties came down.
And soon afterwards my cane did the same, whipping through the air before hitting the sweet spot, plumb in the middle of that pert lily-white backside.
Then a second stroke, just below the first.
Then a third, the hardest yet.
Stephanie gave a low moan and, for a few seconds, was struggling to keep still. To her credit, she composed herself and the caning resumed. I never cane full force, as I believe it is barbaric, but I pride myself on administering crisp, accurate strokes in those tender places where it will do a girl, or in this case a woman, most good.
In a very short time, livid red stripes were decorating Stephanie’s whole bottom and I knew she would have those tell-tale marks for at least several days. But, as I have explained to generations of girls, there are far worse things in life than a sore bottom.
By the ninth stroke, she was sobbing uncontrollably, and after the twelfth, the hardest yet, by long tradition, her hands flew to her bottom. She hopped up and down on the spot, all modesty gone. But I decided to be merciful. She had learnt her lesson. And after all, if she had not been prompted by guilt to do the decent thing after all these years, she would never have been exposed to the ministration of my trusty cane.
As we resumed our seats on the sofa, Stephanie more gingerly than me for obvious reasons, there was no real sense of awkwardness. In fact, there was a good feeling between us. We were grown women, free to make our own choices. We had negotiated a difficult situation in a mature, responsible way.
Justice, belatedly, had been served.
© Sally Cavendish 2022